Monday, March 28, 2011

Unions (Part 3) : Teacher Support, Protection, and School Reform Flexibility

Today we will reflect on two aspects of unions that are very important as it comes to how schools function, but that often are overlooked by outside observers. These two aspects are (1) support for teachers and (2) flexibility with school day, structure and management approaches.

Teaching is hard work. Between planning, managing student behavior, grading, contacting parents and administrative duties, teachers have many different "buckets" to tend to, and it takes a good deal of energy, hard work, talent and experience to effectively manage all these areas. For the average teacher (especially in their first few years) doing the job well means getting support, and the sad truth is that managers in the workplace don't always operate from this support framework, but instead act strictly as evaluator, delegator, or punisher. While this could thus open up a discussion for us about school leadership, let's instead look at how unions respond to this reality:

1) Unions protect workers from unreasonable or unfair management practices, giving the teacher room to learn, make mistakes, and grow without the unnecessary stress of unbearing supervisors.

2) Unions offer avenues for professional development that otherwise might not be accessible to teachers. For instance, unions offer generous course catalogs of credited and non-credited courses teachers can take to advance up a salary scale and maintain their licensing. These courses are low cost or cost free, and address critical needs for staff. Unions also protect teacher time, which gives them the opportunity to pursue areas of growth through fellowships, independent research, travel, and graduate study. 

These aspects of unions are important and should not be dismissed by critics. At the same time, these services do draw criticism. For instance, critics could respond by saying:

1. teachers need to be held accountable, and unions protect bad teachers
2. unions shouldn't be in the business of providing professional development--it's not their core function, so it shouldn't excuse unions from obstructing reform and improved schooling.
3. while some teachers might advance their practice with time off, others might not. 

So unions protect teachers, and that can be a good thing or a bad thing. Big surprise. What can we learn from this little exercise? Well, it clearly places the union between the teachers and the management. So if management is working for reform and teachers are lazy, unions are the enemy. But if management is incompetent or corrupt and teachers are hardworking and skilled, the union is the hero! Clearly, on the teacher side, we know that neither extreme is the truth. Perhaps we should look at a corollary issue--what does management in a school actually do? How does management interact with, or should it interact with, the union?

While politicians make the rules, unions are still instrumental in setting them and this is frequently sited as an obstacle to reform. School leaders find union reps to be a thorn in their side, disrespecting and subverting well-intentioned efforts, and calling out minor infractions of work rules that might be counter-productive in the first place. Leaders cannot manipulate their staff when a vigilant union rep is around, and this truth can go both ways for the students. With tight budgets, principals can't ask unionized teachers to stay late without paying them overtime, and a series of issues stem from just this one conundrum. Questions abound about what schools could be without unions, and charter schools are a laboratory testing these hypotheses. We ask: What could we do with a longer school day? Longer school year? More flexibility with staff assignments? More options for holding teachers accountable? 

With experience as both a unionized teacher and a non-unionized teacher, and through my observations of what is going on at other schools across the nation, here is my conclusion on this point about unions, teacher support, and flexible school rules. I'd argue that the union is not the problem--though it also does not contribute enough to the solution. Rules in schools are not set by unions, they are set by politicians who are accountable to voters and donors. The unions do have a voice and this voice is generally used to do what unions do--protect workers rights. I would argue that this is not such a blatant cost to the students, because protecting teacher time, privacy, and academic freedom actually serves the students in many ways. By contrast, having longer days (one of the most sought after goals of school reforms) is not a recipe for higher achievement by itself. Instead, higher achievement comes from this equation:

longer days+good curriculum+good teaching+good social support=higher student outcomes

Charters that produce better results with longer days often have better teachers, better leaders, smaller classes, excellent enrichment courses and STILL work hard to protect their teachers. Taking away unions might take away some of the bureaucratic headache associated with reform efforts, but it would not guarantee that all the building blocks for achievement are in place--it could just as easily lead to more burn-out for teachers and students as bad/desperate managers pressure the school to do more, but not better. 

With all that is said here in support of unions, I want to emphasize that I do not support tenure nor do I support union "protections" that run counter to sound research about good student learning. 

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